Is Your Strategy Compatible With Black Swans?

Ignoring Black Swans, Project managers pursue a predefined output within a set of constraints including time, resources, and scope.

Similarly, project sponsors expect to get the benefits promised by the project. They organize their work as if life was linear and deterministic. They ignore the Black Swans, or the unpredictable and high-impact events.

Yet we all note how difficult it is to deliver outputs, outcomes and benefits according to the premises made at the project launch. This remark also concerns programs and portfolios.

The reality is that life goes from fracture to fracture, with a few vibrations in between.

In the words of Nassim N. Taleb[1], “Black Swans dominate much of human history.” And this is true as well in the domain of project, program, and portfolio management.

A Black Swan, says Taleb, is “a highly improbable event with three principal characteristics: It is unpredictable; it carries a massive impact; and, after the fact, we concoct an explanation that makes it appear less random, and more predictable, than it was.”

Look at the impact of the financial uncertainty, the technology changes or the trade war on your business.

And indeed, if I look back to the key events that strongly and positively impacted my own working life, almost none of them has been predicted.

My most exciting career move? Pure coincidence. My best boss? An error in an agenda. My greatest project success? No roadmap, almost no resources, yet a series of lucky unexpected opportunities[2].

So a project manager’s strategy should be to tinker as much as possible and try to collect as many Black Swan opportunities as possible.

Taleb explains: “If you know that you are vulnerable to prediction errors, and if you accept that most “risk measures” are flawed, because of the Black Swan, then your strategy is to be as hyper-conservative and hyper-aggressive as you can be instead of being mildly aggressive or conservative.”

“Instead of investing all your resources in “medium risk” actions, invest a portion, say 85 to 90 percent, in extremely safe actions. And assign the remaining 10 to 15 percent in extremely speculative actions, as leveraged as possible (like introducing new business models, new technologies, or a “prima donna” in your project).”

Above all, do not rely (too much) on top-down planning. Learn instead what serendipity means. And focus on maximum tinkering and recognizing opportunities when they present themselves.

This requires that you invest in preparedness, more than in prediction, and that you counterbalance your traditional Goals-Ways-Means strategy with a strategy based on Situation-Potential-Ripeness as for example the Chinese Mencius explained around 300 B.C.

Why don’t you take a few minutes and make the following exercise?

Consider your own life in the domain of project management. Which (unpredictable high-impact) “fractures” did you personally experienced? Do you feel prepared for a future Black Swan? Would you like to write a short comment about your experience?

To your continued success


High-Impact PMO

[1] Nassim N. Taleb, The Black Swan

[2] More related stories from project, program, and portfolio managers are in my book : The High-Impact PMO

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